Listening Well

I recently attended a 3-day immersion program studying attachment theory. At one point we were asked to draw a circle and plot how we were raised to deal with nine “core” emotions. If we were allowed to have/express that emotion in our family, it went in the circle. If not, it went outside the circle.

Without thinking about it, I plotted the emotional map of my childhood as “before” and “after.” “Before” was life with a bi-polar father before he accepted care. “After” was life after he accepted care. This was not a dramatic choice. It was a very banal choice; almost clinical. I had grown up with two distinctly different experiences, both were valuable insights for me. As such, they both had a place in the circle.

We were then asked to break into small groups and share our circles. After sharing mine, the conversation immediately shifted from “oh that is interesting” to curiosity about the mentally ill. I was peppered with questions like, “What was that like?” and “What did that do to you?”

I felt very exposed, vulnerable. I backpedaled. “Oh, no it’s fine. I’m totally fine! I am fine now. It’s totally fine!” 

When I was finally able to break away, I had a good run, then a good think. Why was I so disturbed by their reaction? I am familiar with people’s curiosity. I usually anticipate it. Why was this so upsetting? 

Because, to me, mental illness wasn’t a focal point of this exercise. I was on a different trajectory. And for them, the only thing they heard was “bi-polar.” They just heard the “before.” They completely ignored the “after.” They were so interested in the juicy tabloid bits of bi-polar that they ignored the fact that I also talked about an after - a point at which many of those core emotions were sitting comfortably inside that circle with a bi-polar father.

They missed my point. They didn’t hear me.

There are a lot of reasons why we misunderstand each other. Maybe it is because the other seems foreign and that makes us scared. Maybe because it peaks our curiosity. Maybe it is because we are distracted. Maybe we are clinging to preconceived notions and stereo-types.

Maybe it is because we are not listening well.

Listening well requires that we turn down the volume on our own internal conversation. We have to focus on the “hear” (see what I did there?) and now.

This week, if we are lucky and blessed, we will be sharing a meal with people we love and who love us. That often means we will be breaking bread with people we don’t ideologically agree with. This can cause a contraction. It can make us mad. How do we share space with people we don’t agree with?

There are no easy answers. Your best option may be to walk away. It may be to avoid the conversation entirely. If, however, you are endeavoring to turn down your own noise and be a better listener, I recommend trying the “2 second pause then reflect” approach.

When someone says something to you, wait 2 seconds and then tell them what you heard. For example:

Kiddo:  Mom, I do not want to do Math is Cool!

Me: (RAPID THINKING “Yes you do! You love math! You will have so much fun! All your friends are doing it! Just give it a try!!”Wait 2 seconds. Reflect… You don’t want to do Math is cool.

I know, this sounds phony, and it actually is when you first do it. But it works. It forces you to pay attention.

The two second pause forces us to process what we heard rather than jumping right into what we are thinking (which, let’s be honest here, is usually something about ourselves). Reflecting back makes us codify what we heard. And, since we most likely don’t want to get caught looking silly, we will pay closer attention so that when we reflect back, we get it right. 

Give it a shot. You may be surprised how often you hear yourself saying “oh I know exactly what you mean! I blah blah blah…” Notice how often you start forming your next question, counter point, or thought without even processing what the person said. 

When you find yourself saying bum-rushing the conversation, stop. Take a moment and reflect back what you heard: 

Kiddo: No! Math is Cool is going to be a lot of work. 

Me: (RAPID THINKING: Wellyeahitisgoingtobealotofwork,butthat’sOK!) Wait 2 seconds, Reflects… You don’t want a lot of extra work. 

Kiddo: No! I can barely keep up with what I have now. 

Me: (RAPID THINKING. Yes, this is true you are struggling with your work loadWait 2 sec. Reflect… It sounds like you are afraid you will be overwhelmed. Am I hearing you correctly? 

Kiddo: Yes! 

I’m not going to lie, it’s a ton of work. It also feels very hokey and awkward at first. However, the whole point of conversation is to hear each other and be heard. Anything less is just us making noises at each other. Anything less and we’ve missed the point entirely. 

I wish you all the love and bounty of the season friends. May your table be full and your heart fuller. 

Voting Day

Yoga is often translated as “union” or “to join.” In a fragmented and often lonely society such as ours, this is a lovely translation. It imbues a sense of wholeness, a promise for peace through connection. 
I love this translation. 
Unfortunately, it is incorrect. (Dang it!) 
Yoga comes from the root yuj which means to “yoke” or “bind.” There is a fundamental difference between joining something together and binding it. “Joining together” brings to mind a desired, invited coupling. Binding, on the other hand, is a restraint against will. Binding is an act of will and force that is typically put upon something that does not want to be bound.
Yoking is also an agrarian term. A yoke is tool traditionally used to bind two oxen together. There often is a plow attached to it. I plow the field to prepare it for planting. When I bind two beasts together, I am able to double the power and control the rate at which animals move. And, with their combined power, I am able to till more soil. 

Choosing the term “yoke” to describe the practice is a conscious one. It depicts a specific action. I yoke, or bind, the two beasts of burden that keep me from knowing my true Self; the body and the mind. I force the body and mind to do my bidding, to work for me. They help me till the soil of my experience so that I may plant the seeds that will bear the fruit of enlightenment (or, more specifically, ensure that I do not plant the seeds that will bear the fruits of karma… but that’s a lesson for another day).
In doing yoga I am using my power, my force, my will, to control my mind and body. I choose what to react to. I choose what to do. When the mind skirts away, I bring it back. When the body says “no, I don’t want to!” I say, “just try.” I no longer allow my mind and body to dictate my experience. I do. 
That is power. 

Yoga is often described as something that gives us peace, makes us feel more calm, relaxed. And while this may be a byproduct of the physical practice, the original design, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, was not peace per se. The point was liberation, or more specially Kaivalya, which means “emancipation.” Emancipation is defined as liberation from the bounds of karma and the cycle of reincarnation. It also means freedom from bondage. So, while we may find peace in our liberation, peace in and of itself is not the goal of yoga. Freedom is. That freedom comes from first controlling the body and the mind. Power to control my experience.  
Again; power.
The third pada (teaching) of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the “Accomplishments.” It is primarily of a list of powers that an accomplished yogi may encounter on their path to liberation. These are magical powers; flying, walking on water, becoming invisible, healing the sick, etc. For many people, the third teaching is sort of glossed over. The siddhis (powers) are seen as fantastical, wishful thinking, bizarre even. They feel out of place with the rest of the teachings. 
This makes sense if you are looking through the lens of yoga = peace. However, if you accept yoga = liberation, then you realize, magic powers are just a stepping stone along that path. If all of this phenomenal world is make-believe, then there is nothing at all unbelievable about overcoming the bounds of “normal” experience. The yogi will naturally have the power to overcome nature.
There’s that words again: Power. 
Clearly, one of the fundamental aspects of the practice according to the Yoga Sutras is power. 
Why then is there a divergence in modern practice from yoga-as-power to yoga-as-peace? 
There are many hypotheses. Here is mine:
Because most of the people who practice yoga are women. It is not socially acceptable for women to step into their power. Women are, for the most part, not encouraged to be powerful. 
Yoga teaches us that we have the power to choose our own experience. When a woman steps onto the mat she is told, “You are allowed to take up space. You are allowed to be flawed. You are allowed to try and fail. Go ahead. It’s OK!” Telling our sisters and brothers that this moment is enough, that they are fine just as they are, is liberating. It is empowering. 
But, because it is not socially acceptable to speak in terms of power, we flipped the script. We found a way to make our empowerment less scary. We tell ourselves and others that yoga keeps me calm, more peaceful. Yoga makes me less hysterical. 
Don’t worry, yoga will not upset the apple cart. 
Except when it does… 
Women’s history is essentially the struggle against power imbalances, against our power being taken away. Yoga promises to light a way back to that power. Which is why, I want to encourage all my yogis to remember; you have the power to upset the apple cart by exercising your right to vote. 
Your great grandmothers fought for you. Your mothers fought for you. Now it is your chance to fight for you. You have the right to practice, to play and you have the right to vote. 
Do not believe you do not have any power. You have been given a right. Do not squander it and do not let anyone tell you do not matter. 
You do. 


I find myself regularly failing to meet up to my standards of acceptable behavior. I am either too short tempered, too timid, too impatient, too disorganized, too, too, too many things that do not add up to a good, worthy me! I spend a lot of time thinking about what I could have done better and then feeling a defeatist kind of regret at my obvious human-ness. 

But recently, I was introduced to St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. The cornerstone is the “examen.” The examen is similar to doing a daily meditation or prayer, but there are steps; Experience, Reflection and Action. In the Experience I go over the day’s events. I list all the things of the day; good bad, indifferent. Then I list at least three gratitudes. Then I Reflect. I take stock in how I measured up in my day. This is often a very uncomfortable experience. I have to be honest with myself and hold myself accountable for all my actions (or inactions). Lastly, I meditate and ask for grace. In the meditation, I wait and ask for direction, that’s the Action part. I ask myself What are my next steps? What am I going to do now? 

I am grateful for this practice. It has helped me accept my failures and reminds me that I am going to live to see another day. And with that day I have options. I can do better. 

Yoga teaches us how to be accepting. However, acceptance isn’t necessarily an indulgent, permissive mother. Sometimes she’s stern and demanding. Acceptance means we sometimes have to give ourselves the side eye and say, “really? Was that your best effort?” And when the answer is “no,” we have to say “OK, well, that happened. What am I going to do now?” And then we have to go out there and try again. Try, reflect, try again.

This is the grace of a mindfulness practice. It does not excuse us, but it does forgive us. AND it demands we do better. It is fierce love. 

As you head into your days, I recommend a daily reflective practice to help you manage your messy lives. How do you strive to be a better person? What happened when you fell short? What have you done lately that you are not proud of? How do you love yourself? And what are you going to do now?  

Try, reflect, try again.